Saturday, December 29, 2018

[Daily] Four Essays: Orwell, Auden, Bettelheim, MLK

It's on the second reading I get the most out of a piece of writing, be it a book, an essay or article. Lately I've been finding it's also what else I'm reading that matters, the sequence and timing.

This morning I began The Eloquent Essay: An Anthology of Classic & Creative Nonfiction, edited by John Loughery. (I picked it up yesterday from the library, after going in intending to only return books.) Although the essays are ordered by publication date, I suspect a deeper method to Loughery's selection, for the first few essays cumulatively make an impression that a single one doesn't. The first two make you appreciate life by investigating death; two others ignite a sense of agency over, and urgency to act upon your life.

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The first essay is George Orwell's "A Hanging" (1931), which is quite well known. This was probably the third time I've read it, but enough time has passed that the narrative arc was familiar but details felt fresh. This essay is unusual in that, though told as a story, it clearly states its message less than halfway through and allows the rest of the tale to magnify that point. This poignant moment occurs as the prisoner walks to the gallows:
I watched the bare back of the prisoner marching in front of me. [...] At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. [...] His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the gray walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned—reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world [...].
After Orwell, we come to "The Guilty Vicarage" (1948) by W. H. Auden, which is the only essay here new to me. It's ostensibly about Auden's self-professed addiction to detective stories. Not any detective stories—ones that "conform to certain formulas." He's so addicted, he's compelled to pick apart the essential attributes of these stories, first defining what does and does not constitute a detective story (Sherlock Holmes, yes; Crime & Punishment, no, Kafka's The Trial, no—they are art). He asserts the tale must be about a murder, because murder is special:
There are three classes of crime: (A) offenses against God and one's neighbor or neighbors; (B) offenses against God and society; (C) offenses against God. (All crimes, of course, are offenses against oneself.)
Murder is a member and the only member of Class B. The character common to all crimes in Class A is that it is possible, at least theoretically, either that restitution can be made to the injured party (e.g., stolen goods can be returned), or that the injured party can forgive the criminal (e.g., in the case of rape). Consequently, society as a whole is only indirectly involved; its representatives (the police, etc.) act in the interests of the injured party.
Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand restitution or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest.
Stories deliberately toy with the differing demands of each class of crime:
Many detective stories begin with a death that appears to be suicide and is later discovered to have been murder. Suicide is a crime belonging to Class C in which neither the criminal's neighbors nor society has any interest, direct or indirect. As long as a death is believed to be suicide, even private curiosity is improper; as soon as it is proved to be murder, public inquiry becomes a duty.
Auden then dives into the five elements of these stories in similar detail as above, and speculates on the goals of the reader, which includes his self-diagnosis. The part that builds on Orwell's attitudes is the classification of murder, though. It builds on this question of: why is killing a human such a singular act? It's hard to ponder this question without thinking, then, that each human life is precious.

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After a brief interlude about "Writing and Analyzing a Story" (Eudora Welty), we return to two more well-known essays: first, Bruno Bettelheim's "The Ignored Lesson of Anne Frank" (1960), followed by Martin Luther King, Jr's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963). These two essays further develop the sentiment established in the earlier part of the book, and tell you: life is worth preserving, and you're in charge.

Bettelheim's piece on Anne Frank is a bit long-winded—he repeats himself a number of times, which has the effect of showing just how exasperated he is. He's exasperated about Anne's story being the celebrated story of the Holocaust, when he sees her family's choices as passive, unrigorous, and unrealistic. They chose to go into hiding as a family, which is much harder and riskier than as individuals in separate households, and made no plans for what to do in case of discovery—either by arming themselves to at least go down fighting, or by creating a secondary escape route (there was one entrance to their hiding spot).

To Bettelheim, the Franks failed to take their lives into their own hands, and they were not alone. He describes similar phenomenon amongst some of his relatives, whom, as Nazi regulations on Jews got worse, "clung more determinedly to their old living arrangements and to each other, became less able to consider giving up the possessions they had accumulated through hard work over a lifetime" instead of fleeing. He diagnoses the cause:
I believe the reason for such refusal has to be found in their inability to take action. If we are certain that we are helpless to protect ourselves against the danger of destruction, we cannot contemplate it. We can consider the danger only as long as we believe there are ways to protect ourselves, to fight back, to escape. If we are convinced none of this is possible for us, then there is no point in thinking about the danger; on the contrary, it is best to refuse to do so.
It's worse than self-destruction. People who have given up will drag others with them. He recounts a story from Olga Lengyel, a survivor of Auschwitz.
When Mrs. Lengyel's fellow prisoners were selected to be sent to the gas chambers, they did not try to break away from the group, as she successfully did. Worse, the first time she tried to escape the gas chambers, some of the other selected prisoners told the supervisors that she was trying to get away. [...] She [observed that] they resented anyone who tried to save himself from the common fate, because they lacked enough courage to risk action themselves.
Bettelheim ends his essay with a connection to contemporary events: "If today, Negroes in Africa march against the guns of a police that defends apartheid—even if hundreds of dissenters are shot down and tens of thousands rounded up in camps—their fight will sooner or later assure them a chance for liberty and equality." This leads us right into MLK's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." It's hard to imagine this was not a deliberate transition engineered by our editor, Loughery.

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When re-reading MLK's "Letter," the most poignant impression I had was: this is a man who'd be almost 90 years old today, communicating forcefully, vitally across time. It reminded me of something my friend Kevin told me on a recent visit to the Legion of Honor museum that changed my point of view. I'd always been underwhelmed by relics of old civilizations, like pottery and jewelry, and wondered what people got out of looking at them. But Kevin said, "well, it's like reading the Iliad and realizing that people thousands of years ago were like you and me—they described each other, their emotions, and their surroundings—flowers, bees—the same way we do now." Their pottery and jewelry is like pottery and jewelry we'd use today. That's the sort of feeling I had reading King, that this person seems as relevant and alive to me today as he did fifty years ago when he wrote this.

King, when presented after Bettelheim, is the quintessential opposite of the Franks, especially in his sense of urgency. He answers very thoroughly, "why?" but also "why now?"
For years now I have heard the word "wait." It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration.
He rebukes "the myth of time"—the idea that time itself leads to positive change.
I had also hoped that the white moderates would reject the myth of time. I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said, "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry? It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. [...]" All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.
King is not an exact follower of Bettelheim, though. Whereas Bettelheim's point of view would seem to urge violent resistance in King's situation (degrading treatment and systemic threats on your life), King urges breaking unjust laws, e.g. laws of segregation, while keeping to the just laws, which, though not explicitly stated by King, would include violence based on his description. In taking the high road, King describes how he must straddle the "two opposing forces in the Negro community."
One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodyness" that they have adjusted to segregation, and, on the other hand, of a few Negroes in the middle class who [have sometimes benefited from segregation and thus] unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence. [...] I have tried to stand between these two forces [...] If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood.
King's situation is not quite as extreme as the Holocaust, where large-scale, organized extermination of a class of people was taking place. King knew he could be killed, but it would not be due to formal orders from the government. What he describes above as the two opposing forces are the two forces that Bettelheim identifies—passive, learned indifference versus violent resistance. In contrast, King finds a third path that is possible in his slightly lower-stakes situation, if only they can act and bring about change in time. Time is of essence, for "[t]here comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over."

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I didn't expect going into this book of essays to be inspired to write what's become an essay itself. That's the magic of the selection and sequencing by Loughery. Connections compound.

The conflicts discussed in the four essays focus on man-versus-man. If someone were to add a fifth essay to this sequence, it would be interesting to tackle man-versus-nature, building on the survivalism theme and on King's sense of urgency.

The survivalism expressed by Bettelheim makes me think twice about some things that initially sounded crazy to me, such as the armageddon bunkers in New Zealand that were universally panned in the media. They're seen as selfish, but they're also something none of us would turn down if the need and opportunity to use one arose. If nuclear war or another form of environmental catastrophe does happen, not all of us will survive. Is it not better that some of us can prepare for it and carry on the species, even if it's not you and I? Most of us have to admit we do not feel equipped to fend for ourselves in case of armageddon, and part of us resents that others have the means and have acted. (Some of the criticism is also due to fears about the downstream effects of having such a fallback plan—that a powerful person might care less about preventing world-scale problems if they have a fallback. The fact that no one has moved to their bunker suggests the world outside is still much preferable, though.) King would likely remark that this is the wrong fight—to find a way to work productively toward a solution before a time of crisis does arrive.

The most lasting image from this sequence for me remains the one from Orwell, of man, aware, sidestepping a puddle. What Orwell and the authors here bemoan is man robbing man, of life or freedom. [0]


[0] Thoughts that don't fit in this post neatly, to ponder another time: Nature ultimately takes away from man the same things, just later.
I've heard that every time we lose a person, we lose a book. I think we lose at least a few essays for sure. What would it be like if everyone wrote them instead?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

An ad on BART

On the way back from Berkeley yesterday, I saw this ad on a BART train.



Many questions came to mind as I stared at it for the duration of the ride:
  • Copy: The copy is surprisingly aggressive. That final "Okay?" makes it sound like something an adult disciplining a child would say and could set the reader on the defensive. Perhaps it could simply stop at, "Keep elevators clean for those who need them." Or, to be more collegial, "Let's keep elevators clean for those who need them."
  • Imagery: The current image tries to make people feel for the elevator by anthropomorphizing it with a sad smiley face. Given that the copy prods the reader to think of those in need, might it be more effective to also include images of people (perhaps people in wheelchairs, with injuries, or the elderly) who need to use the elevator? Incidentally, the PRIORITY SEATING sign right below accidentally helps this cause.
  • Placement: Is the BART train car an effective place for this ad? It might be more effective on the doors of the elevators.
  • Information Content: Someone seriously considering doing their business in an elevator is in need of an alternative. This poster could give directions to the nearest public restroom.
  • Goals: I wonder what the goals of this ad are. Is anyone monitoring whether these ads correlate to cleaner elevators? One could see this ad as a simple cry for help or expression of frustration from BART staff. In those terms, this ad is likely a success—it's eye-catching and memorable.
  • Unintended(?) Effects: This is an anti-ad for riding BART elevators. I have never ridden a BART elevator, but now I sure will avoid them. It likely has the same effect on anyone unfamiliar with the BART system or its elevators. In a weird twist, one side effect of this sign might be to warn tourists about the questionable state of the elevators, and thus prevent them from actually using the elevators and potentially encountering an unpleasant sight.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Your tone comes from your head

About a week ago, I had a minor breakthrough on violin: I shifted the pad of my right pinky to rest on top of the bow, rather than falling to the side, which forced me to hold the bow with the hair flatter on the strings. This felt different and required getting used to, but my sound was better. I also remembered that my teachers long ago had told me to hold the bow this way.

Three days ago, I had another minor breakthrough that built on top of this. I was trying to sustain the sound in a particular rising, angsty phrase of the Brahms sonata (no. 1), and I felt I was working pretty hard and still not getting the sustained sound I wanted. I thought about something I'd read recently, that you really want to be using gravity to draw the bow. I tried to achieve that feeling. It was easier to do at the upper half of the bow—I needed to keep my elbow higher. But I was losing that feeling as I got to the bottom half. I looked in the mirror and saw I had to curve my wrist more as I reached the bottom of the bow to maintain that feeling. Again, these were things my teachers had told me before, that I had not been able to put into practice until now.

I've been playing violin for twenty years now, without a teacher for the last five. I spent the first seven years with a teacher who only looking back I can see imparted poor fundamentals that led to years of shoulder pain and un-learning and re-learning that continues today. (Still, seven years of flawed learning was better than none, given that the damage was recoverable and that in the meantime I was able to participate in youth orchestras.) That after this long time, something clicks, is a surprise, and I mused on why? What should I take away? Here are my reflections.


Working to fix past mistakes takes time. Patience is key. Other people may be faster, and that's okay.

The most frustrating part of youth orchestra was that as I learned more about how to phrase music and how it should sound, I still was not able to play it, and I could see my peers progressing much faster.

After college, my life became focused on work, with music at the periphery. Within music circles, though, I had the same frustrations, and as work got busier, I started playing more often alone, practicing at home. Both were important: knowing I could be better, and plodding along for years.

The famous cellist Pablo Casals was asked, through his advanced years, his 80s-90s, why he still practiced so hard every day. He said, "Because I think I am making progress."

I think taking the time to play alone helped a lot. I became more okay with my pace of progress and happier with the task at hand. I was talking to my friend Kevin yesterday and realized this irony, which is I feel more anxiety about how much I am improving at my job versus at violin, even though I spend more time doing my job and arguably perform better among all software engineers as a whole than among all violinists as a whole.


To discover the change, I had to work from the goal, not from the mechanics. Yet mechanics are the foundation.

I ended up discovering a way to play that had the same mechanical description as things I've been told long ago, but what I was doing felt different than it had ever felt.

Part of my ability to make a change came from the years of practicing at a suboptimal position—even the experience of bowing in a suboptimal way taught me better how to hold the bow and "balance" it in my hand, a physical skill that is needed to hold it the more optimal way.


Doing it the right way is easier and less work. 

If I am struggling, I should seek to struggle less. Challenge one is just to recognize the struggle, because it's easy to accept my current method as long as it's been reasonably successful. Challenge two is to know what is necessary struggle versus wasted energy. The way to recognize that a better way is better is to experience and compare it to a less successful alternative for a meaningful amount of time.

Ironically, if I had started out holding my bow the better way and forgotten how I had learned that, I would have less appreciation for why to do it that way.

It's easy to think that doing it the right way is harder, but it's actually just getting there that is hard. You have to work hard to understand and get the skills to make it less hard.


Progress is driven by innate love and focused by external pressure.

Overall, this slow process of learning violin hasn't felt like work. I've found that if I practice once a day, I am happy. It is like meditation. If I don't practice for a while, I get unhappy. There's something about being totally focused, deep in work problem-solving mentally and physically. It feels like a workout afterwards.

Yet I have been practicing by myself the past few years without this dramatic of an improvement. Why did this happen now? I'm reminded of a line I read recently, applied to startups, but applicable to my violin playing right now—to some degree, I finally feel my ass is on the line. My friend Kevin and I auditioned and got accepted to play the whole Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1 in early October, which is a bit over 30 minutes of music straight. I've played in longer concerts in orchestra or chamber music groups, but never that long as a violin solo, where you have fewer bars of rest, in a setting where all attention is on you, where people will hear the bumps but also the fruits of thoughtful preparation and practiced stamina (in contrast to Revolution Cafe, where I have performed the full Brahms sonatas no. 2 and 3, where people are drinking and chatting).

Also, the first time I worked on this piece was in college, and I thought it was easy because the notes are easy compared to something like the Sibelius concerto. Revisiting it now, I realize how much more you can do with those simple notes, which makes the piece hard to play well. So it's this combination that has sharpened my focus. I'm not part of a teacher's violin studio that requires me to play in a recital anymore. I signed up to play and it's totally exposed, and a tougher situation than I've known. And it's something I want to, care to do well at, because I want people to also understand why this piece is so great, because I can finally see it myself.


Your tone comes from your head.

This final thought didn't come from me, but it helped precipitate the recent changes. Sometimes even an often-repeated idea comes to you at the right time to have meaning for you.

I follow a number of classical musicians, mostly string players, on Instagram. Among them is a violinist named Arnaud Sussman, who stands out in the amount and quality of his content. He seems to manage his account himself and regularly posts videos of himself practicing. He also does Q&As every so often. In his most recent Q&A, someone asked him, how do you achieve a good tone [on the violin]?

Arnaud's response was (paraphrased from what I remember): First, your tone comes from your head. When I was younger I spent a lot of time listening to old records: Oistrahk, Heifetz, Milstein, Perlman... [Additional advice on practicing.]

This is a surprising statement because the more obvious idea is that tone comes from your physical movement—how you draw the bow on the string and how you vibrate your left hand. I realized I spent a lot of time thinking about the mechanics, and would tend to think reactively: "How do I want to adjust the tone that's coming out right now?" instead of "What do I want the tone to be?" before the bow hits the string. What happens when you imagine it first, is you are forced to conceptualize what tone means, and you aren't tied to what your muscle memory produces.

As a tangential outcome of this thought, I started playing a listening game now when I'm in an Uber and the driver has some pop music on. I try to figure out all the different instrumental parts. Synthesized pop music tends to have many layered repeating parts, which makes this exercise easier than for orchestral works, and still what seems like a simple background has more and more parts for the ear to pick out as I listen—what sounded like three parts initially become seven and I'm left wondering what I missed. Try it yourself!



If you got this far—come hear the Brahms sonata that inspired this post! My friend Kevin and I will be playing it at Noe Valley Ministry as part of the SF Civic Chamber Series, on Saturday Oct 6 @ 3pm.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Two Tabs

This week I added two open browser tabs on my personal computer.

Tab 1 - Long-term
At the beginning of the week, my brother Mike visited a few days and stayed over. I showed him some of my favorite spots in the city (cafes and restaurants!) and we had a good long chat one morning at Streamline Cafe in the Outer Sunset. After chatting with him, I was suddenly inspired to do a bit of soul-searching and came up with this quick exercise:

First, I wrote down the title, “Work I would do even in retirement.” I filled out high-level bullets—there were three.

Second, I wrote down the title, “How could I get there?” I copied each of the bullets from the first list and created three sublists for each: “Already doing,” “Dream job as I see it right now,” and “Could be doing.” It took twenty minutes.

This exercise showed me a few things:
  1. The three main bullets were consistent with messages I’d been telling myself as life visions. They were each rooted in a belief I have about the world, and each something I’d call an unusual obsession. 
  2. To my surprise, I saw I was already doing things in two of the three categories. They were things I hadn’t stopped to consider. Once I’d done them, I’d immediately dismissed them because they didn’t seem as impressive anymore. I’d forgotten the time and effort that went into them.
  3. There were also lessons. For example, one of the Already Doing is a small volunteer activity that I’d started a few years ago, and the sheer amount of time that has taken convinced me that doing more volunteer work in the space is not feasible right now.
This list is now Tab 1.


Tab 2 - Short-term
The second tab was inspired by a post pushed to me on a promoted Tweet. Usually promoted Tweets are not a source of life advice, but this one hit home because I felt it diagnosed me. The tl;dr was: every day, instead of a To-Do list, focus on one thing that has the most impact. 

There are always going to be the folks saying this is crazy, of course you need a list to keep track of things. Tab 2 is still the To-Do list I have been keeping up. What I’ve changed is to split the list into the “mundane life things” (like picking up an item at the store, packing my stuff to move), and then a single bullet or two of the important thing to do each day.


These are experiments. I'll see how effective they are in three to six months.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The tent in the office

A few weeks ago, I was in Richmond, VA chatting with my Uber driver on the drive back to the airport. She asked where I was from, and upon hearing SF she brought up the latest news from our city that had apparently made it across the country—the ban on plastic straws. 

Every ban has two sides, and the interesting thing about this ban is who is speaking up against it most compellingly. Here it's not a big company that makes plastic straws, it's people with disabilities who need straws in order to consume liquids. This use case was not in my awareness before I saw it in the news, and it likely wasn't for most people who supported the ban. My surprise reminded me of how people react when I talk about my appreciation for the tent in the office.


If you walk into the Instabase office, one of the first things you'll notice is the tent pitched in a walled-off corner. When one of my friends came to interview, he had already heard about it from a VC. The tent blends into the fabric of the office when you see it every day. I have lost my beginner’s eyes, so I observe the reactions of visitors. Some are repulsed; others see it as a sign of a committed team. Yes, it's occasionally used for crashing, and that is the most obvious meaning and utility of the tent. That’s not why I use it or love that we have it. 




On a Wednesday morning a few months ago, I was scheduled to give an onsite interview. I realized shortly after I woke up I was probably not going to make it. My period had started, which meant in a few hours I was likely to have bad cramps. I pinged the two other people who were available to cover, and luckily one of them was awake and free.

Based on talking to friends, I'm guessing my pain is on the higher end of the spectrum. Painkillers tend to reduce but not get the pain down to a level where I can be productive, and based on experience my cramps continue until I either take a nap or fake it by lying down extremely still for one to two hours. The good thing is there’s a straightforward solution. I just need a spot to lie down. In the age of open offices, though, this can be surprisingly tough.

At the start of my career, I spent four years at big companies where my periods led me to discover how much of a privacy desert an open office is. At my first job (at a company I overwhelmingly feel grateful to), there were nap rooms, not to mention nursing mothers’ rooms, but they were perpetually occupied—demand exceeded supply. When I lived close by in Menlo Park, I would cab or Uber home. Later I moved to SF, and that ride became a more painful and expensive proposition, so I stuck to the office. I would walk a few buildings over from where I worked so people wouldn’t recognize me, and lie on a couch in a small living area between two clusters of desks. It was exposed, next to a busy walkway. I was a bit embarrassed, but it was the best option I found.

I became curious how other women were dealing and posted in an internal women's group to ask. I saw a range of responses, from sympathy from people who experience less discomfort, to stories from other women who sought spaces to rest. One woman said she had trouble finding places to lie down during her pregnancy, so she would go to the parking lot and lie down in the trunk of her SUV.



As much as it's judged and possibly ridiculed, the tent at the office is the most available space I've encountered in my working life when I need to lie down. It's private, yet not entirely secluded, so I can hear what's going on in the rest of the room and even respond. From an engineering/product standpoint—how well it solves the problem, cost, mobility, ease of deployment—a tent is a great solution for our tiny but fast-growing startup.

The tent solves one of the two uncomfortable parts of my experience with period pain—the space to rest. The other part is talking about it when it throws randomness into my schedule. It has always been a weird topic to bring up to my managers, especially as only one of the ten I’ve had has been a woman. But I recognize it’s primarily weird because it’s not usual; I bet there was a time when being a nursing mother was weird to talk about, but nowadays mothers' rooms seem a normal fixture of offices. 


The main reason I wanted to write this post is, well, the plastic straw business reminded me about it. The tent is my plastic straw. In the bigger picture, this is one issue that highlights to me what it means to have and support diversity in the workplace. I have nothing to add to the broad strokes in the dialogue about diversity, but I can help fill in the details of what that concretely means in the office. It's in the mundane details and crevasses of everyday working life that we all can shed more light. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Cross-Site Request Forgery in Plain Language


Cross-Site Request Forgery, commonly known as CSRF, is one of the most well-known web security attacks. I first studied it in a college classroom, and since then I've mostly worked at big companies where safety was often baked into the frameworks most software engineers used. This week I brushed off my dusty knowledge, and in the process realized there is a lack of explanations of common attacks in plain language.

I'll start with one issue, CSRF. This isn't mean to be comprehensive, but hopefully will augment other resources. This post will outline the problem and is meant for a general nontechnical audience.

Browser Background


To understand CSRF, you first need to know a bit about web browsers. Notice that when you log into a website, from then on, the website seems to "know" it's you who is browsing it. You can continue to click from page to page without being asked to log in again and again. How does this work?

This works because of a browser feature called cookies. On a basic level, a cookie is a piece of information that a website can send to your browser when you visit it, and the website can metaphorically ask to store that information on your device. You can configure your browser to reject cookies, but by default most browsers accept and store them.

From then on, browsers follow two rules:
  1. Whenever you access a website that sent you cookies, the browser will send back whatever cookies that website stored on your device.
  2. The browser will only send cookies that came from Website A back to Website A; it will never send cookies that came from Website A to Website B.

Note: none of the above is magic. It is how browsers are expected to behave. When you use Chrome or Safari, you are trusting that Google or Apple have correctly implemented those rules.

Let's go back to the example of logging into a website. Here's what happens behind the scenes, on a high level:
  • After you send your username and password to the site, the site verifies your username/password, and sends back a set of cookies that essentially says, "This certifies we know you are YOUR-NAME-HERE." Importantly, it's hard to forge these cookies.
  • On each subsequent request to the website, your browser sends back that set of cookies, which stands in place of your username/password to identify you.

You can imagine it would be pretty bad if an attacker got access to your cookies and could then impersonate you. This is the logic behind Browser Rule #2 above, and underlines the trust you are placing in your browser.

However, the point of CSRF is, an attacker doesn't even need to get your cookies.


CSRF: The What


In CSRF, an attacker tricks you into taking an action, identified as you, without you intending to do that action. To give a physical example in the same spirit: it reminds me of this phone scam where a caller asks you, "Can you hear me?" The attacker records you saying "Yes", and then uses that "Yes" fraudulently as proof you wanted to buy some product you didn't actually agree to. You protest, "But that's not what I meant when I said 'Yes'!" However, you did say 'Yes'—that is your voice.

CSRF has a similar structure, except the thing used to identify you is your cookies, not your voice. Let's assume you are logged into a website we'll call MyBank.com. Thus, your browser has stored the cookies set by MyBank.com that say "This certifies we know you are YOUR-NAME-HERE." Remember that whenever the browser makes a request to MyBank.com, it will always send those cookies that identify you.

So if the attacker wants you to take an action on MyBank.com that you would not knowingly want to do, they need to come up with a way to make you send a request to Website A without you knowing it. A plausible request you would not want to make is "Send $100 to Account-Owned-By-the-Attacker." The question is, how do they convince you to make a request you don't want to make?

Importantly, you don't need to have MyBank.com open in a browser tab in order for your browser to make a request to it. A malicious page can contain code that executes "Make a request to Website A that sends the attacker money." So the short answer to the above question is: the attacker gets you to visit a site, or open an email, that contains malicious code, while you are logged into MyBank.com. They cannot guarantee that when you visit the malicious page, you are logged into MyBank.com at the same time. But if you happen to be, then the attack can succeed.

In the worst case, it is really that simple—you open a harmful website or email, and you've been hit. And most of the time you will not even know, because the harmful website or email is disguised to look harmless.

Prevention


As an end-user, you can try not to click on sketchy emails or visit malicious sites, or any sites that might have embedded sketchy code. In practice, this is tough to do, and most of us simply trust that MyBank.com has implemented standard safety checks to prevent this kind of attack from happening on it.

The key behind the protections is this: Remember above, I said "you don't need to have MyBank.com open in your browser in order for your browser to make a request to it." That is true, but a website that is properly protected will only allow requests that were made on the website proper to succeed. It will detect that requests to it made from other locations are not legitimate, and cause those requests to fail. So, if MyBank.com is well-protected, an attacker can still make you visit a malicious website that makes a request to MyBank.com that says "Send $100 to Account-Owned-By-the-Attacker," but MyBank.com will recognize that this is not a request you made from MyBank.com and disregard it.

How does MyBank.com do this? I'll save this for a later post. There are a few different solutions, but the summary is again: you are putting your trust into the fact that your web browser is properly implementing security policies, and that MyBank.com is properly implementing these prevention techniques. As the end-user, an important thing to understand is what entities you are implicitly trusting.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Oncall Conundrum, and thoughts on the heroic last-minute push

I have never met a software engineer who liked being oncall. It makes sense: we're used to flexible hours and working conditions—we don't show up for a shift, aren't usually tied to a location—and the most glorified and interesting parts of the job typically happen in deep flow, while building things. Being oncall violates all these terms. You are on the hook for a fixed period, you can't go off into the woods and your plans may be interrupted at any time, and when shit happens, you're stressed and maybe sleep-deprived and you're not building—you're debugging and doing damage control. Your actions feel like short-term hacks, and you know you're going to have to actually clean things up later. Add on top of this: when an incident happens at night, often you are alone, you feel bad for waking other people up, and you may end up hunting around in systems you don't really understand, seeking out outdated half-done documentation. It's a special loneliness.

Some of the worst oncall situations I've been in occurred on the ads team at Pinterest. I described it to some people as feeling like being thrown in a meat grinder—I knew I'd get chewed up by the machines. Of course, the one most memorable experience was caused by my own work, which left a painful but deeply-ingrained lesson. (Long story short: I had to work around a flaw in my new metrics workflows by staying up all night, refreshing pages and clicking buttons every 20-30 minutes. That or else advertisers wouldn't get their metrics, which sounds relatively benign, but is your whole point of view when you are working on ads data.) But when the fires are due to systems you didn't build, especially large ones that will take a long time to fix, that can cause a lot of frustration and loss of morale. 

Perhaps this is why, when Li Fan first joined Pinterest as its head of engineering and the company held an eng all-hands, I remember only one question from the Q&A. Someone stood up and said: I think being oncall is one of the most under-appreciated tasks. You may stay up all night keeping the site up, yet this stuff gets little visibility and recognition. What are you going to do about this? 

I'm going to guess fundamentally not much has changed, and not because of her or Pinterest. It has taken me the past five years of experience to realize this. It's because the issue is tricky: you want to praise the motivation and raw effort that goes into great firefighting, but you also want to recognize firefighting as a failure case: "Thanks for doing this work, but this work should ideally not exist." You don't want to create perverse incentives by explicitly rewarding firefighting, otherwise people will be incentivized to set fires or ignore preventative measures. On the other hand, the human effort and individual sacrifice involved in firefighting is inordinate compared to other parts of the job. Unlike literal firefighters, software engineers who are oncall do not consider firefighting their primary responsibility. It's usually the activity that takes away from the parts of the job that they are hired and recognized for. Thus the conundrum.

The best thing to do, of course, is to decrease the amount of firefighting needed. One thing I've never seen tracked at any company I've worked at is the number of hours spent firefighting. At least, as an oncall, I have never reported it or been asked. Measuring has to be the first step. Then surfacing it, e.g. in managers' team health reports.

But no matter what, something will always happen. One thing that could improve how oncalls feel is to give explicit time off for people who do end up fighting fires at odd hours: i.e. something like, "if you fought a fire last night, don't come in the next day." This seems obvious, but I have never heard this policy articulated at any company I've worked at. I think it should be time off immediately after the event, so the intent is clear: to help people recover (and so people wouldn't be motivated by getting extra flex vacation days). One concern is then: but what if I have commitments the next day and have to come in anyway? One way to mitigate this is to plan ahead of time: don't have people who have time-sensitive commitments be oncall close to their deadlines. (I find that when I think about people things, often I end up with some version of "talk about it" and "do better planning.") 

There are bound to be places where the constraints are too hard and the above approaches can't work, like if there are deadlines and fires all the time. If that's you... you may work at a startup.


I now work at a startup where the flavor of oncall issues are currently less fire-this-moment, more customer-support oriented (though this is not to say there are no drop-everything fires). They also typically happen during business hours (which does not mean just US or SF business hours). The point being that oncall has actually not really been top-of-mind. At this SaaS company it does feel like part of the job.

I was thinking about the oncall mentality recently because of a pattern I've seen across my whole career, though it's more pronounced in smaller companies: the heroic last-minute push to finish and ship a product. When you're participating in one of these, it's like a longer version of an oncall shift—you are often hammered for several days or longer. In January, there was one week where I worked sixteen hours a day for seven days straight. We stopped working shortly before our demo at 10pm on a Sunday (business hours in another time zone). At the end of one of these, you want to feel good about having put in the hard work. The tough thing is to step back and say, but really, ideally this should not have happened. And on a tiny team, you know it happened in part because of you.

It's actually easier to reflect on the meta-failure if you were part of the team in the sprint—you have more contextual information and the platform to self-criticize. As an observer, it's uncomfortable to say something because it might be perceived as taking away from the hard work that other people put in. Unlike oncall, where even the participants may easily admit that the work is better off being entirely mitigated, the participants in a product sprint are building something that should be meaningful and that they should want to feel good about. Invariably a discussion about the "how" of a product execution is tied up with people's feelings about their contributions. 

This is the lens through which I can understand the value of an explicit product manager, or even a project manager, at a small company that might perceive their biggest challenge as having enough hands on deck to build—there is someone whose craft is this meta, which makes it easier to talk about and critique this meta. A software engineer invites a discussion of code style, because it's part of their craft. A product or project manager invites us to talk about the craft of execution. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

[Daily] Saturday 2018.05.26 - Brain dump: a few things I learned this week, mostly about people

I learned a few things this week from two events and a new acquaintance. This is a brain dump of things that stuck.


== Work -> Coworkers -> Health ==
On Tuesday night I went to an event where Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford Business professor, talked about his new book on the cost of modern management practices. His opening line: “According to the Mayo Clinic, the person you report to at work has a bigger impact on your health than your family doctor.” It's obvious when you think about how often we see doctors, but it's an unusual way to frame the people we work with: are they helping extend your life? That's a question to turn inwards to ask myself: am I helping extend the lives of my coworkers (or killing them faster)? It's also a responsibility I had never explicitly thought about.

One objection to measuring "well-being" at a company is that it's hard to measure. However, Jeffrey said a single self-reported 1-5 of “do I feel healthy” has been found to correlate to mortality. I.e. people roughly know whether they are healthy or not.


== You get what you screen for == 
Wednesday night, I attended a panel about mentorship that featured a mentor/mentee chain: Ken Coleman, Ben Horowitz, and Michel Feaster. The second half of the panel focused on diversity and inclusion (often shortened to d&i). People management lessons are best conveyed in stories, and Ben told two stories that stuck.

The first story was about a person named Chris they'd hired for a role that required being really good at making people like you. They had interviewed and passed on a number of people who were investment bankers (Ben joked that was probably not the ideal profession to be looking in) before considering alternative profiles. Chris used to work as a waiter at the Cheesecake Factory, where they rank waiters by their tip percentages. Chris had ranked #1 chain-wide in percentage tips, so he was a champion in a field where to be good, you have to be liked. Ben's points: 1) when hiring, are you defining what skills you actually need for the job? (notably Ben didn't stress the title of the job, rather the skills needed), and 2) are you then seeking out people with those skills in all possible places, including non-obvious ones?

Ben prefaced the second story with, "People at the firm don't like it when I tell this story, but I'll tell it anyway." He once asked a team that was all women, "What is it about your interview process that you can't hire any men?" The team responded that they screen for helpfulness. Ben could have taken this response in a number of ways—are no men helpful? this team must be crazy—but his observation was, hey, it's unusual to screen for helpfulness, and that is clearly making a material difference.

I remember this one statement by Ken: if you are discussing a candidate and can't identify their weaknesses, stop. You are probably missing something because everyone has weaknesses, and if you know about them upfront, you can manage around them.


== Words and connotations; Culture from office furniture ==
Yesterday, I met up with Jules W, whom I ran into at the a16z event. He's a product manager at Slack working on growth. During our conversation, he told two stories that gave me, "oh shit, I'd never thought of that" moments.

The first story is about words. At Slack, they did a few months of user research and found the most effective phrase to describe Slack to most new users was "collaboration hub." For the longest time, Stewart, the CEO, had opposed using the word "collaboration" because it's a fluffy, overused-to-the-point-of-meaningless word in Silicon Valley. But the Valley is not the rest of the country, where "collaboration" can be viewed quite positively, and the Valley already knows and uses Slack. Their research also found that people were confused by the word "tool," because people outside of tech don't really use "tool" to describe software and tend to think of physical objects. A "hub" captured the feeling of "tool" while illustrating the purpose. For me, that's something to chew on regarding the words we use to describe Instabase. Mind you, we have many other critical things to think about, but I had at least personally been operating with the mindset that an "operating system" sounds cool!

The second story was actually a statement. "Slack will never have a ping pong table." Why? He said, a ping pong table is fun for people who have looser schedules—which tend to be younger folks who don't have families. They can afford to take longer breaks, play matches, and make up for it by working late. People with more commitments outside of work can be conflicted, possibly feeling left out because they can't afford the breaks in the middle of the day. In general, Slack wants to foster a culture of "come to work, work hard and stay focused, then go home," because that culture tends to work for a wider range of people. And building that culture requires thinking about even the office furniture. I have thought about open offices and noise and distraction, but not about this particular second-order effect of fun things.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

[Daily] Thinking Spaces - Saturday 2018.05.19

I wonder if loud environments are particularly distracting to people who are wired to think a certain way. In college I talked to two friends who said they don't think in words; they think visually and in symbols. About two years ago I remember Blake Ross wrote a note on Facebook about the opposite: he can't visualize anything in his head (known as aphantasia). I primarily think in words and sentences, not pictures—I can visualize things, but in general it's not natural, and I find spatial thinking tough.

This morning, I got a coffee and quickly left Sightglass on Divisidero, where they were playing rock music at volume 10 in their airy space that enhances the sound of chatter and coffee grinding. I had pulled out my computer to write, put in earplugs (an underrated city essential), and still had trouble focusing, so I moved down the street to Vinyl. I remember reading in the book Mountains Beyond Mountains that Dr. Paul Farmer used to study in the same room as someone (a sibling?) practicing drums, and I find that dumbfounding and superhuman.

Incidentally, an article about how open offices are bad for women came out recently. Besides one internship where I worked in a cubicle, I've never known anything different, and in general I prefer open offices. I have fortunately not encountered—or not noticed—any comments from people around me about me as I've worked. If anything, discomfort I've felt sitting close to others has been in my own head due to self-consciousness, especially early on in my career: am I working too slow? Can people see me struggling? I remember feeling this doubt strongly almost everywhere I worked at Facebook, especially when I was seated right next to tech leads who are today my north stars. On the other hand, sitting next to these people allowed me to see up close what they did on a daily basis, and have frequent conversations with them. Ultimately I think this environment pushed me to and helped me become better, faster.

The one aspect of open offices I continue to dislike is the lack of sound barriers, which makes deep thinking hard for me—perhaps due to the verbal-ness of my thinking, or due to a musical instinct to pick apart ambient sound. At Pinterest, I first encountered and took a big liking to these chairs with walls, which do a surprisingly good job of blocking out the world. I would choose to have one of these at my desk over an office chair.

the Pod PET Felt Privacy Chair by Benjamin Hubert

One thing I look forward to spending more time shaping, as our small startup grows and claws its way to more stability, is the kind of spaces we work in. I think there are non-ideal parts of open offices as they are typically designed, but instead of dismissing them as being bad for a whole swath of the population, we should talk about the specific features we want to enhance or mitigate. I wonder if small tweaks, like allowing people to choose the type of chair they sit in, would help some of these larger problems. The funny thing is that I have never encountered at any company big or small a conversation about how each person tends to think, what they find distracting, and what spaces they seek out, although this seems a substantial lever for productivity.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Importance of Names (Lessons from Winston Part 1)

In fall 2009, I took Patrick Winston's introductory AI class, 6.034. Almost nine years later I remember almost none of the content, but two of his "off-topic" lessons have stuck, and one has become a guiding principle for choosing where I work. In this post I'll just talk about one.

The first lesson is the Rumpelstiltskin Principle, which is roughly: "when you give a concept a name, it gives you power over it." Wikipedia shows this idea dates as far back as a paper by Willem van Tilburg in 1972.

There are many possible interpretations of this principle. There is the general positive take: when you have a name for a concept, you have an anchor against which to have a discussion and further explore it. There is a cynical take: you can manipulate how people perceive an idea with the name you choose.

For me, the interesting corollary of this principle is: you should expand your vocabulary about a topic, and seek to be specific. A general word for a large category of ideas gives you "power" over a whole lot of vagueness. One example is the power we have over our emotions, the better we are to label them. (This wheel below is in fact still very incomplete, as articles like this one—"216 'untranslatable' emotional words from non-English languages"—remind us.) Learning these words is part of developing emotional maturity.



These days there is a lot of news about "social media" and "algorithms," and it's disconcerting how definitive a pronouncement people are making about such large general concepts. It's hard to say specific things about not-specific concepts. So I guess the other side of this Principle is: a name for a general concept can give you the feeling of power over that entire concept. And this is a word of warning to ourselves. Even a term like "climate change," which people talk and are concerned about for good reason, gives us a false understanding of the general topic. One warning sign is: if I know a general word but no specific words for the topic I'm talking about... I either should do some more research (or invent some words for my new field).

One of the interesting parts about law in particular is just how many terms there are. One small specific thing I learned from the outcome of a court case over a beating at the August Charlottesville white nationalist rally is there is a higher form of assault called "malicious wounding" that is more serious than "assault and battery." Law is rightfully full of terms because it's an attempt to put clear rules around the ambiguous world (and still there is plenty of ambiguity left over so that we need lawyers, judges, and juries). One way of looking at law is that it's purposely inscrutable to the masses because it keeps the in-crowd employed. The other way of looking at any field with a thickness of vocabulary is that this field likely has a deep understanding of something.

Monday, May 14, 2018

[Daily] Monday 2018.05.14 - Moving bricks

This morning I feel a bit in a daze. I the spent the latter half of Saturday in my room, and most of my Sunday. I got into a groove working last night. Finally, most of the pain in my hands is gone. As well as my back (gosh, am I that old?). I got up early this morning, waking at 3 and beginning at 3:30 with breaks. If I've learned anything from these episodes it's the importance of breaks.

I'm writing at Snowbird, where I've returned as a semi-regular after a break. It may be my favorite coffeeshop in SF now. It's a good place for hunkering down to do a set piece of work—the low ceilings favor it.

Yesterday I reflected on the types of activities I enjoy. I've found working at a tiny company where there are lots of gaps to plug is a perfect environment to figure out what I gravitate towards, or at least what I gravitate toward in the presence of others. Since college, I have felt I have the heart of a liberal arts major in the body of an engineer—not that those are mutually exclusive but that I feel some part of me not exercised in my work. Top of my list were: writing and teaching. Then, working with people, communicating, solving problems. Engineering is only interesting to me in that it can solve some problem. The bits and pieces themselves are just bricks.

This short exercise made obvious the restlessness I feel day to day. This blog has been a good outlet for scratching the writing itch. I'll have to work on the teaching.

And now, to work. An ambitious day ahead. Many bricks to move.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

[Daily] Saturday 2018.05.12 - Beautiful weather; McPhee on editors

It's a beautiful day in San Francisco, sunny, high in the upper 60s, windy. I forced myself out of bed to go for a run this morning. As I stepped outside and smelled the air I felt immediately energized—perfect running weather. For the first time, I made it first in line at Andytown.

Not wanting to squander this day, I wandered to one of the sunniest cafes I know, Neighbor's Corner. They were closed due to a power outage. I went to Hearth instead and read for a few hours: first, some of Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel and then a chapter of John McPhee's Draft No. 4. I noticed the days-of-week of Steinbeck's journal are almost aligned with 2018, and I had happened to have made it to early May, so I made an effort to read through Friday May 10; there's no Saturday entry and it picks up tomorrow, Sunday.

In the McPhee, I read the chapter on editors and publishers. It was mainly a portrait of William Shawn, longtime editor of The New Yorker (he held a tenure of 35 years) and the first of McPhee's editors there. The portrait was McPhee's lens through which he made points about editors: what they are when they are good or bad; weird biases even great ones can have (e.g. Shawn did not like reading about cold places or unusual food). I liked this particular passage regarding the role:
        Shawn also recognized that no two writers are the same, like snowflakes and fingerprints. No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of that fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip. Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing. An editor's goal is to help writers make the most of the patterns that are unique about them.
        There are people who superimpose their own patterns on the work of writers and seem to think it is their role to force things in the direction they would have gone in if they had been doing the writing. Such people are called editors, and are not editors but rewriters. I couldn't begin to guess the number of onetime students of mine who have sent me printed articles full of notes in the margins telling me what the original said. An editor I know (not professionally) tells me that he sees this topic from the other side and most writers need what they get. He will never convince this writer. My advice is, never stop battling for the survival of your own unique stamp. An editor can contribute a lot to your thoughts but the piece is yours—and ought to be yours—if it is under your name.
I like that sentiment—it's not a novel idea, but well said. He goes on to talk about "nut graphs" in the next paragraph. This section brought on unpleasant memories from writing for The Tech (where pieces got edited last-minute by sleepy, overworked student editors to the point of inserting factual errors, and nut graphs were often discussed).


I have a chunk of coding to chew through this weekend, so I'm now home. Despite the work, I'm in enviable circumstances: south-facing window open a crack, a splash of rye in my old Facebook whiskey glass, listening to Seong-Jin Cho's Chopin Preludes.

Friday, May 11, 2018

[Daily] Friday 2018.05.11 - On becoming "experienced"

We're back at that time of year when I can wake up early to sunlight. The sun rises at 6 am.


When I think back to college, I know I would do it differently if I had another chance. The same goes with the earlier years of working. It's common to say that over time, you get better at estimating how much time a given task will take, and recognizing what's important to work on and what doesn't matter. 

I think a good part of becoming "experienced" is just learning about yourself—what are the types of things you like to do and are good at? Given constraints, what's the best way for you to achieve a goal? I used to stay up late studying before exams, when probably I would have done better to sleep more and study less. These days, I know I'll do better to complete a task by resting eight hours and working three than if I pushed through the whole eleven, or even pushed through the first three. (Maybe it's also me aging through my twenties.)

I think another part of becoming "experienced" is establishing a core set of beliefs about how the world works and your place in it. I think it's hard to push hard in a consistent direction without this. This core set of beliefs can be different than what you observe your environment generally follows, and if it is, it helps you understand sources of conflict. For one, I generally believe in the happiness of the group over the individual, and carry a bias toward stability and efficiency. I have to remind myself that the act of giving birth, so to speak, is sort of antithetical to stability.

Another kind of core belief is about the way life will play out and the innate value of different types of experiences. What are your views on fairness and luck? What you picture being the arc of a life well-lived?

I believe having a grasp on these questions allows a person to be more resilient and self-directed, in whatever work they choose.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

[Daily] Thursday 2018.05.10 - Me as video game character; Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel

One of my coworkers describes RSI as the black lung of programmers. The past week has been tough with the pressure of delivering new features, doing interviews and lots of interview coordination (which is highly manual and thrashy), responding to and debugging inbound support, and fighting pain that goes all the way from the wrist up to the shoulders. If I were a video game character my health bar would not be full, but with RSI it's like playing a video game where there's a lag between taking a hit and seeing the drop in health—you don't quite know how much pushing yourself now for this length of time will show up later.

One piece of joy in my day is reading a little bit of Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel [review by Independent], which I chanced upon at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston last spring. I love Steinbeck's voice in my ear, and I purposely read this small volume of diary entries in small spurts to savor it. It's especially interesting because I recently (like a year or two ago) read East of Eden. More on this in a later post.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

[Daily] Tuesday 2018.05.08 - A new blanket, and resisting purchases

I am inordinately happy with this blanket I got this weekend from Maker's Market @ Mill Valley Lumberyard. Here it is freshly laundered, in active use:


I'm not a huge shopper, but every so often I see something that in the moment I take a big liking to. On this day, in particular, I weighed three other items: a print of a minimalist map of the Outer Sunset, at Avenues SF (not Avenues Dry Goods or Other Avenues or even The Avenues generically—lots of Avenues out there); a small crossbody canvas bag at Guideboat; and even a pair of pennyloafers at Guideboat. Anyone who has seen me would probably find the last two items out of character, and I agree. I wear a faded green-now-tan backpack like a permanent turtle shell (it fits a laptop, notebooks, a few books), and comfy black Nike sneakers 95% of the time. Every time I go out with other footwear, I notice I can't walk as fast. So as to why I took a liking to these things—it's got to be ads. 

I've bought numerous things before that are more aspirational than practical (clothing, advanced cookbooks, even wood floor polish), and then I realize they don't fit in my life. The reality of my day-to-day life and bias toward practicality win out. 

So I ask myself these questions now: Will I enjoy this thing in two months? (This is especially relevant for seasonally-useful items.) When do I see myself using this? I try to picture a specific event or situation when I'd use it. 

It would be a lie to stop here, though, and pat myself on the back for my mental fortitude. I think a big part of resisting purchases has been the fact that I've packed up so often in the past 8-9 years. That includes clearing out my dorm room at the end of each college year, moving into a temporary apartment while TAing one semester, moving across the country, then moving five times in the last five years in the Bay Area. Packing is a pain and actually highly thought-intensive (you are solving minimal packing problems constantly), and each time, I've gotten a good look at all my belongings and know what things I don't use and are dead weight. So really, the immediate second thought when I see something I want to buy is, "Will this make moving more annoying?" That thought brings about recent memories of packing and probably triggers my brain to emulate physical pain, and slaps away most of my urges. 

Now you understand what barriers this bulky-ish, big blanket had to overcome to arrive on my bed.

Part of this "imagine moving" technique relies on my believing I will move in the future, and the near future. I've thought about how my mindset will shift once I buy a house—which I have no plans of doing, but believe won't be in the Bay Area (I want a yard enough to plant a garden... with money left over to do other things). 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Environment and Compatibility

There's a certain kind of thinking that can only be done in coffeeshops in the morning. Or maybe there's a kind of thinking that's just hard to do in the office, where the environment envelops me in a sense of duty. This morning, I picked up coffee to-go and came into the office early, falling back to what I've been doing my whole short career. There's still no one here, but the first hour and half became responding to emails and ticking off boxes, the type of things I can do in the minutes before bed. This small experience shows to me the impact of environment—even four walls with connotations, no people around, can do this. I've now put on Dave Brubeck and Coffitivity, which helps.

This reminds me of a related topic, that over the years I've come to believe a similar thing about jobs as relationships. W.r.t relationships, I have lost most of the inhibition to make the first move, because rejection does not hurt much anymore. (It will always hurt some.) This is ironically an outcome of being in several relationships (and other not-quite-relationships) that didn't work out, which made me realize that modern-day compatibility is incredibly hard and rare to find, and failure is not explicitly the fault of either of the two parties. Modern-day compatibility is strongly based on individual tastes. If someone rejects me, it's not my fault for not being attractive enough or their fault for not finding me attractive. As much as we like to think we are in control of ourselves, we can't force what we respond to, or on the flip side, dramatically change our personalities. It's in fact easier to change our looks.

Jobs are fit to a personality as well, which is often talked about in terms of entire professions, or big companies versus small companies. What I've seen is that even subtle differences among very similar situations make a big difference in how effective the same person is. I can say that for myself. I felt that at Facebook v. Pinterest, which are on the surface two large social networking companies, but the difference was more pronounced in tiny companies. After leaving 13-person Chorus, I felt I couldn't make a decision on another startup without working at them first, so I did brief contracting with four companies (sizes: 5, 13, 10-20, 4) before joining Instabase (4). It was surprising to me how at certain places, I felt—and I think, was—much more effective than at others. Same person, different types of work, different coworkers and company structures, different styles of communication.

I keep this in mind when recruiting. It makes me more empathetic when things don't work out, and makes me realize the resume and even pure technical interview is only a slice of what makes someone successful at a particular place. More broadly, I hope this mindset will become more common, so people do not view either being rejected in a relationship or being rejected by a company as categorical value judgements or measures of their self-worth. As with finding a fulfilling relationship, finding a fulfilling job is hard, and you should expect to fail a few times and get better at it over time.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

[Daily] Saturday 2018.05.05 - Musician-Athlete, Jazz-Engineer

Last night I saw Ray Chen play Brahms Violin Concerto with the SF Symphony. It's hard to say words about a fine performance (probably easier to find words for criticism) because there are only so many words in the English language for sound. This reminds me of something Anthony Bourdain said about food writing, that it eventually all sounds the same, like porn. [1] I can say generic things like "Ray played the shit out of the Brahms," or describe the impact on me: I felt joy to be alive to experience this. Part of the impression I left with is what I imagine you'd feel at a professional sports game like tennis. The simple act of standing on stage mechanically executing finely coordinated finger-and-arm movements with 99% accuracy for forty-five minutes is an athletic feat. Layer on top of that the need to focus on artistic expression, and on top of that the psychological pressure from being under the spotlight and from audience expectations. Witnessing this concerto played in such a setting with a breathtaking degree of skill and expression is to witness a height of human ability.

Before the concert, two friends and I were sitting in the lounge at Davies chatting, and we talked about the decline of classical music. Well, it's declining in the US, but has become very popular in Asia. We joked that it might be because Asian culture emphasizes skills tests (there is a game show in China called The Brain, which is like The Voice but for mental skills, where competitors do things like solve Rubik's cubes), and classical music is an elaborate skills test.

Though Asian culture favors mental tests over physical tests like sports, playing an instrument is to me much closer to sports than to a cerebral field like science or engineering. One thought that occurred to me last night was: I've read the Brahms concerto on violin, so I can physically play the same notes as Ray... but, what oceans between us! It's like me hitting a tennis ball versus Serena Williams hitting a ball. Yes, you can point out the fact she has a better racket—a tennis-racket Stradivarius, if you will—but truth is, she can beat you with any racket. 

Classical music as it's practiced today is focused on refining a set repertoire, whereas jazz is more like engineering, where you have some common foundation but then are never quite building the same thing, even though many jazz licks and engineering feats look similar if you squint. The goal, at least, is to build something new and improve upon the past, rather than reinterpreting a plan created centuries ago. I love classical music, but of the two mindsets I prefer the latter, and that's why I think if I were ever to become a full-time classical musician, I would get quite frustrated.


[1] The quote: “Writing incessantly about food is like writing porn. How many adjectives can there be before you repeat yourself?” [source: New Yorker]

Friday, May 4, 2018

What makes a hands-on trade?

My RSI is kicking in again, so I'll try to keep this short.

I'm reminded of a college suitemate who arrived as a freshman with RSI already, because he had spent so much time coding in high school. He installed dictation software and got a foot-powered mouse. It was still a big struggle. I would hear him in the lounge outside my room laboriously dictating code at 1AM. I heard from another friend he eventually got foot RSI.

The short of it is, coding is still inconvenient without your hands, despite the perception that it's the opposite of a "real" hands-on trade. It's likely easier to be a writer with RSI than a programmer. Or rather, a writer of conventional pieces: sentences and paragraphs that move from top to bottom and consist of the standard words in the language. Things that might still be hard: writing Finnegans Wake or concrete poetry. In both the cases of programming and unconventional writing, the hard part is not actually getting the characters out (if you knew exactly what to type before you start), but the process of editing.

At the same time I think it would be pretty manageable to do something like write equations in a spreadsheet, or write Instabase Flows, both of which are a type of simpler programming. The difference is there are clear standard building blocks and relatively little custom 'glue' for the programmer to deal with. These are both more constrained environments, overall more declarative than imperative. It makes sense that when the 'blocks' of an environment are defined, it's easier to create tools to make it easy to work with those blocks.

On the other end of the spectrum there are artists—painters. I can't imagine that becoming a non-manual job until we have true brain-machine interfaces.

Those seem to be the two ways we can approach making manual jobs not manual: making them as declarative as possible (abstracting away complexity), then building tools around them; or creating better ways to translate the intent in our minds into action. Even cars can been viewed this way: cars translate our intent to move in some direction into action. In this example, the fidelity of this translation is limited by the vehicle's turn radius. For a painter of fine still lifes, that fidelity would have to be very high.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

[Daily] Thursday 2018.05.03 - China and the Muni, both are crowded

On Tuesday night I had dinner with my good friend Julie. We spent the end of the evening chatting in the first floor lounge of her apartment building. Before I left, we headed back to her apartment to get my backpack. We stepped into the elevator, joining two others: two men who looked to be delivering items (one had a dolly piled with household goods). Then a third guy stepped in, just making it in before the doors closed.

There were five of us with roughly enough personal space to raise our arms to 30-degree angles without touching—cozy but not uncomfortable. Julie joked, "Hm, it's crowded in here."

The third guy said, trying to joke back, "Have you been to China?"

There was an awkward silence. "Uhhhh.... yeah," Julie said.

"It's, ah, super crowded over there."

"Have you been on the L during rush hour?" Julie said.

Then the doors opened and we got out, along with one of the delivery guys. After I got my backpack, we went back to the elevators and ran into the delivery guy also heading back down, and the three of us shared a chuckle and "wtf?"


A few thoughts:
  • This story told without additional context is really half the story. For instance, some context is that Julie, the delivery guy, and I are all Asian, and the third guy was white. Rough ages: late 20s/mid-30s, except the delivery guy who may have been in his early 40s.
  • Going one layer deeper, Julie is second-generation Korean, I'm second-generation Taiwanese, and I don't know about the delivery guy. Perhaps none of us was attached to China as a country at all.
  • Yet this was awkward for everyone, third guy included. And the three of us who met back at the elevator were able to have an immediate unspoken common ground.
  • I truly think the third guy said the first thing that popped in his head and immediately realized how weird it was. 
  • I wish I could tell him this. Unfortunately, in most such situations there is no opportunity for a group post-mortem.
  • At face value, it's weird that saying a country is crowded can be awkward. You have to go a layer deeper to: what does a statement like that imply that the speaker is thinking, such that that is the first thing that comes to mind? On the flip side, he is likely wondering, how did the thing I just say get perceived by everyone? What do they think of me now? It's natural to assume the worst.
  • I am bad enough at remembering faces that I don't think I would recognize Third Guy if I saw him again in a different context—or even in the same apartment building. There could be a different kind of awkward if we do ever meet again and he does remember the encounter and assumes I do too.
  • Any potential resolution most likely hinges on another chance meeting between Julie and Third Guy in the elevator.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

[Daily] Tuesday 2018.05.01 - Merriam Webster Trending Words


There are trending words on Merriam-Webster now.


I was surprised that each link doesn't open the definition; it opens a short blog post about the word's rise to popularity. For example: kakistocracy



I find this a delightful way to learn new words—the words are relevant, and you learn how to use them through real writing.

Monday, April 30, 2018

[Daily] Monday 2018.04.30 - Timeboxed Panic, Routine Obligations, New Books

About every Sunday night now, I'm arrested by panic about the upcoming week and weeks. I lose about thirty minutes gazing off into nothingness while I visualize the work, meetings, and insurmountable goals ahead. Then life goes on, the week comes, the next arrives. I would prefer to cut out this activity, and console myself with the thought that it's timeboxed and maybe even necessary.

There are two coffee shops below the office—Blue Bottle and Illy. For the first six months I was a regular customer at Blue Bottle and learned almost every barista's name. For my tastes, their cappuccinos are the most consistently good in the city. Yet for the past month I've only visited Illy, where the cafe au lait is consistently weak. What I get here, ironically, is a feeling of anonymity, and a more extended period of calm in the mornings because Illy doesn't fill up as fast. I'm further deterred from Blue Bottle knowing it's going to be a little awkward going back—I'll have to explain. This situation seems more complicated than it should be and non-ideal for any coffeeshop: routine turns into relationships and relationships turn into expectation, then unfulfilled expectation becomes a deterrent for return. How do you stop it? High staff turnover, stand-offish service, or a staff of robots? I begin to see the appeal of CafeX (if only they had seating).

Last night I picked up two fun books I saw at Booksmith:
  • Zizek's Jokes [some excerpts] — as the title says. Jokes of Slavoj Žižek.
  • Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve [review by NPR] — a statistical look at famous authors' writing styles.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Chinese Re-literacy, Month 1

Since returning from Taiwan four weeks ago, I've been practicing reading and writing Chinese almost daily.

While I'd hardly call myself old (except in the soul), it hit me this trip more profoundly than others that one day my parents will die and I will be on my own to carry on relationships with the half of my cousins who grew up in Taiwan. This visit was a big family reunion on my mom's side. I rarely see my extended family, much less all together, and probably spent more time with my cousins—both American and Taiwanese—in this trip than all others combined. I was surprised how much I enjoyed talking to them, even if the communication was sometimes challenging with lack of English fluency met by rusty Mandarin.

So that was a kick in the butt to revive and improve my Chinese literacy. And there's the promise it will be a useful skill at work. Instabase will be processing Chinese documents for sure.

I've also realized that to not act would be throwing away a lot of advantages I've had. My parents spoke and still speak Mandarin at home, so even if my vocabulary is limited to household talk and I'm literate at a 2nd or 3rd grade level, that's a big step up. One of my cousins reached out on Messenger last week to ask for help filling out a job application to be a nurse at Google Taipei. The application is in English. She started the conversation in English, but we hit a point where I had to ask her what she meant—her grammar was off enough I couldn't be sure of the meaning—and we switched to Chinese. Even with my pasting most of the conversation into Google Translate, which is pretty bad about half the time for Chinese actually, the conversation was more productive. What I needed was her words to be read into pinyin (the sounds of the words) by Translate, and Translate to give me the written words for some phrases. Thus was the state of affairs despite my metaphorically sitting on the couch eating chips w.r.t. my Chinese skills the past 10+ years. Basically, being bilingual from your parents is a cheat code.

Tactics

About a year ago I bought a mini notebook from a home goods store in Cole Valley that has since closed down. Lately I've begun to favor smaller notebooks because they're easier to carry around and to fill up, which leads me to write in them. This Decomposition Book (which I'll now get on Amazon) measures 6.25 x 4 inches. It works well for Chinese because it has grids. I use the Decomposition Book for building up my "curriculum," and a throwaway pad to do rote drilling.


My curriculum comes primarily from learnwitholiver.com/chinese, which I've been a member of since 2009. I smiled when I saw an email from them a few months ago announcing they were being featured on Product Hunt—it was a bit like seeing an old neighbor in the regional news.

My first instinct was to go directly to the site to pull words from lists I created back in 2009.